What is “Functional Training”, REALLY?

Mauldin, South Carolina

There have been so many terms in the fitness industry just pulled out of seemingly thin air. “Clean” eating, “AMRAP”, “HIIT”, just to name a few. Some of these new terms are just the inevitable evolution of fitness. They are simply a way to shorten more complex terms, like “HIIT” is just short for High Intensity Interval Training. High Intensity Interval Training has actually been around for a very long time as it’s origins date back to the mid to late 1930’s. “Clean” eating is a bit more nebulous as it does not have really well defined criteria, but it is used in an effort to describe whole foods, or foods that are in their most basic of forms.

One term that really got the old brain thinking was “functional training”. Functional training is being used as a way to describe training with free weights and is being touted as a way of training that is more “functional” than any other type of training. Honestly, the logic behind it is pretty sound. When you train with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc you are training with “free” weights. Simply meaning that they are free from any guided path. They can move in any direction and are only subject to the laws of gravity. This means that it requires you, the athlete, to have to stabilize, recruit more muscle for that stabilization, and give you a little more bang for your buck as you use more musculature to be able to wield them properly. So, then what’s the problem with this new term?

Well, it implies that it will serve you better than sitting in a machine and being on a guided path when you do a movement. It also comes with some level of saying that other styles of training are “bad” or “worse” for you as you won’t get a “complete” workout and, that you should always do this style of training. That leaves out a whole lot of variables that may factor in when developing a training regiment. What about injury, immobility, disability, and a whole host of other individual factors. A lot of beginners may simply be scared away by the idea of having to handle free weights.

On top of all this, it doesn’t really matter if you are using free weights or not. If you progressively overload your muscles and move more weight over time then it does not matter how you look at it; you are getting stronger! Is strength, no matter how it was obtained, not strength? You can guarantee that whether or not you got stronger by a barbell or a machine you are still stronger, able to do more.

That’s where the big struggle with “functional” training comes in. No, you do not “need” it but, yes it is directly applicable to moving in the free world. It prepares you better for day to day movement, but you’re not better or worse for having done or not having done it. The one through line that all these new terms have in common is that they have been around for decades! How long have we been training with free weights? Well, since the very first time someone ever picked up a weight to train with! So, it all comes back to the bottom line. Someone made up a term to try and sell you a “new” training method that in all actuality has been around forever. They are just trying to sell you something new. Yes, you should be incorporating some free weight training. Yes, you should be eating whole food sources that are nutrient dense. Of course you should be pacing yourself at proper intervals. These are ALL things that have been a part of training for years and years! But, strong is strong.

The only thing you truly have to remember is – stick with it. No matter what you are doing, the only way to see any real success is to stick with it. Fitness is a marathon, not a sprint. If you’re just starting out remember that and, if you have been doing the same thing for a long time, try incorporating a new method or piece of equipment to give the body some variation.